A quick websearch will reveal lots of lists of British and ‘merican false friends – words and expressions that appear to mean the same thing but in fact mean something different. In all honesty, I don’t think they cause me many problems because it’s generally pretty obvious when we’re talking about different things. It’s the sociolingiusitic stuff that has wound me in hotter soup, but nevertheless, when the vocabulary differences aren’t quickly apparent, things sure get tricky.
Here are a few that have got me in trouble:
Homely – When I used this word to describe a hostess who had made me very comfortable and welcome in her beautiful and well run home, I had no idea I was saying she was plain and ugly.
Socialised medicine – This sounds like a such desirable thing to my British ear, and I have to keep reminding myself that someone using the expression here is probably being derogatory.
Quite – I constantly have to slap my wrists and forget ‘quite’ doesn’t mean ‘fairly’ or ‘pretty’ and that it means ‘completely’ or ‘100%’. Of course we can use it like this in BrE with some ungradable adjectives, as in ‘It’s quite empty/You’re quite correct.’ Americans might want to take note of this one. Don’t be like the guy who went on a first date with one of my British friends and told her she was ‘quite pretty’. He was lucky to get a second date.
Eligible – Dispel all thoughts of Mr Darcy from your mind. It seems asking if someone is eligible is a polite way of enquiring whether they are authorized to work here. Don’t be like me and write back saying ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean by ‘eligible’?’ They might think you are an uppity Brit who is quick to take offence at the suggestion that you might be illegal.
Fairy lights – It’s best not to comment on these when you’re visiting your gay friends. I think the correct term is ‘Holiday lights’.
Wicked – I gather this one is regional, and in Boston I might have got away with it. But when I described the deceased at a funeral as having a ‘wicked sense of humour’, I was trying to say what a lovely funny guy he was. The guy officiating during the ceremony repeated it back to the congregation as: ‘And although he had a sarcastic [ie. unkind] sense of humour, he was dearly loved.’ Everyone thought it was an odd thing to say, and it took me a while to figure out that it was all my fault.
Have any other folks come a cropper with a false friends here?
Oh and Brits wanting to test their ‘merican might like to try this quiz.